Pope Francis has just issued his encyclical Laudato Si - "Praise Be to You" - dealing with the problem of man-made cimate change and many other environmental problems. The encylical more or less accurately recapitulates the findings of mainstream climate science with regard to the effects of human activity on the climate. Basically, loading up the atmosphere with greenhouse gases produced largely from burning fossil fuels has boosted the average temperature of the globe over the past half century or so. Fine, as far as that goes.
The Pontiff then moves on to use the problem of climate change as an example of the deep spiritual and ethical problems allegedly stemming from the whole enterprise of modernity. Climate change is not a technological and economic problem involving trade-offs, it is a moral issue. Whenever someone, even as nice a man Pope Francis is, declares something a moral issue, what they are saying to people who disagree with them is: Shut up! How dare you talk of trade-offs!
With due respect, the Pope apparently misunderstands how science and the free enterprise system works. Oh, he praises the miracles of medicine, electricity, agricultural productivity, automobiles, airplanes, biotechnology, computers. From the encyclical:
We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change: steam engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, aeroplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for "science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity". The modification of nature for useful purposes has distinguished the human family from the beginning; technology itself "expresses the inner tension that impels man gradually to overcome material limitations". Technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings. How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications?
Indeed, who cannot feel such gratitude? But the Pontiff apparently has no clue as to how the progress he celebrates and which lifted billions from humanity's natural state of abject poverty came about. See below.
II. THE GLOBALIZATION OF THE TECHNOCRATIC PARADIGM
106. The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth's goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that "an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed".
The earth is not unlimited, but human ingenuity is. Climate change (and other environmental problems) are not moral issues that require sacrifice and abnegation; they will be solved by continued technological progress and economic growth. Anything that slows down that process will slow down the cleaning up and restoration of the natural world.
I will be addressing more of the Pope's musings in subsequent analyses. Perhaps I should send him a copy of my new book, The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century (St. Martin's Press, July 21).